Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Lost In The Wild

Sean Penn, director of the based-on-a-true-story “Into The Wild,” is like a wild little boy. He’s all scattered passion, fire and gusto – with no focus or direction. These qualities are what make him one of the outstanding American actors working today. They are also what should disqualify him from being allowed to helm a film.

I’ve never liked Sean Penn as a director, but I’ve always been willing to give him the benefit of his inexperience in the hope that he’d improve with each picture. No more. Nearly two hours into Penn’s doomed tale of upstanding college graduate Christopher McCandless, turned wandering gypsy “Alexander Supertramp,” venturing forth Kerouac-style into the Alaskan wilderness with only the barest necessities (Tolstoy and London included), I had my “Munich” moment. (Not quite “jumping the shark,” it’s the point in time when I gave up on Spielberg – precisely when the hero of his overlong, Olympic terrorism flick started having flashbacks to the horrific murders he’d never actually witnessed, all while screwing his wife. Huh? You lost me there for good, Steve!)

Penn broke the cardinal rule of never taking advantage of your audience’s patience by starting yet another movie when you should be wrapping things up. Audacious is the only word I can think of to describe introducing an extraneous love story into a film two hours in. And it only gets worse from there. Catherine Keener is always mesmerizing, whether she’s playing Harper Lee or the harrowed hippie of “Into The Wild,” and Vince Vaughn is forever a whimsical delight – but this film should not have been a showcase for Sean Penn’s favorite thespian colleagues. “Hal Holbrook in the desert! Eureka!” I could almost envision the light bulb going off above Mr. Penn’s head. Unfortunately, this is not reason enough to shoot a scene but merely an excuse to see a theater giant emote. Doesn’t Mr. Penn know the term “kill your babies”? Where was his editor?

Yes, the overpowering, National Geographic panoramic shots may be sumptuous, but they’re also hard to screw up even with the worst DP. The score is raw but overwhelming. Which brings me to my most important point. The greatest cinematographers in the world can’t help if you’re telling the wrong story. Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless does an admirable job, but there’s no tension or drama in his journey. He’s already shed his old self – with seemingly no struggle or remorse – and just meanders from set piece to set piece. The real story lays with his parents, played by master actors William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, and his sister, an underappreciated Jena Malone. “Into The Wild” would have been Oscar-worthy if directed by Sean Penn’s exact talent opposite Todd Field, a mediocre actor in his early forties with amazingly seasoned skill as a director. Field could have provided a crucial “In The Bedroom” type treatment, juxtaposing the hero’s journey with the main “journey” of a family learning to live in limbo, spending years not knowing whether their son is dead or alive. What is it like to be denied the benefit of mourning? A question as simple as this applied to Penn’s best images – of Emile Hirsch’s face as his character realizes he’s dying – could have elevated the uneven script to the level of the Alaskan solitude’s beauty.

Sean Penn’s penchant for overfilling the pot, his exuberance for filming oddball characters like the freewheeling couple from Copenhagen, ultimately work against “Into The Wild,” distilling the power of the story. He shows us everything, which is too much. (Ironically, Chris McCandless lived by the motto that less is more.) Perhaps Mr. Penn purposely wanted to make the audience feel the sense of entrapment and tedium that his protagonist felt in the wilderness. Being “locked” in a black box, watching a seemingly endless film going nowhere is a pretty good simulation, I guess. In that, Mr. Penn succeeded.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

American Gigolo

With the 2008 presidential campaign in full swing and fires having destroyed half of southern California, it’s high time for the Constitutional amendment that will allow for Arnold Schwarzenegger to leave the charred ruins of Hollywood and run for Terminator In Chief. Why?

America is a land of movers and shakers – of hustlers – so who better to represent us in the Oval Office than a former male hustler? Now I’m not saying Arnie prostituted his Adonis form in the biblical sense, just that he posed for homoerotic photos in the gay magazine “After Dark” – not to mention the nude shots he did for Robert Mapplethorpe and for much wealthier gay men – and until recently never worked a nine-to-five job. This savvy exhibitionist was as fully aware as Marilyn Monroe that he represented a sexual ideal to a certain segment of the population, and that millionaire patrons would pay just to see him flex. Gods and goddesses don’t have to sleep with mere mortals.

But then one doesn’t have to have sex to work in the sex industry either (BDSM, stripping, Internet porn, etc.) – and posing erotically for a sugar daddy is most certainly part of that industry! If you think the governor of California wasn’t gay-for-pay then you probably believe those girls advertising on Craig’s List actually “escort.” Arnold is Anna Nicole Smith without the issues (yes, the late Anna Nicole was another underappreciated hustler. For a fat, bottle blonde stripper to land a billionaire husband takes a hell of a lot of entrepreneurial skill. Could you imagine the Goldwater Girl Hillary being able to pull that one off?)

But of course there’s more to this piece of Austrian beefcake than just sex. There’s drugs, too! In the classic bodybuilding documentary “Pumping Iron,” the would-be Governator inhales – gleefully playing to the camera – while wearing an “Arnold es numero uno” T-shirt. Later the onetime Mr. Olympia would publicly defend his use of steroids during his competitive bodybuilding years.

In other words, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a wonderfully shameless hussy who doesn’t take himself too seriously. He takes things outside himself seriously – issues that matter like wildfires and war, immigration and education policy. Because he cannot be shamed he cannot be scandalized. The man simply refuses to let others define him. Eat your heart out, Britney & Bush. You can’t get more proudly U.S. than this. Living la vida loca. Living the American dream.

Friday, October 19, 2007

A Black-and-White Phone Book: Control

Watching Anton Corbijn’s sumptuously shot "Control," the wisdom of Werner Herzog filled my head. Responding to charges that he took far too many liberties with real-life events in "Rescue Dawn," Herzog responded that "if you’re purely after facts, please buy yourself the phone directory of Manhattan. It has four million times correct facts. But it doesn’t illuminate."

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Wong Kar Wai, Where Are You?

Watching Tony Leung under the direction of Ang Lee in "Lust, Caution" is like seeing De Niro minus Scorsese or Klaus Kinski without his Herzog. Something’s simply missing in the midst of all that talent (regardless of how many NC-17 rated body parts are in full view). It certainly doesn’t help that the calculating Lee will never reach the heights of the visionary Wong Kar-Wai, Leung's most significant director. I was rooting for Lee through every tilt and pan, but I was also thinking, “What would Wong do?”

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Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Wind That Shook The Riviera

In “The Wind That Shakes The Barley” Ken Loach presents two lessons, one a teaching of history through the eyes of his turn-of-the-last-century Irish revolutionaries fighting the British Black and Tans, another a class in master filmmaking at its finest. (Perhaps the only other filmmaker to come close in recent years is Deepa Mehta and her trilogy of political upheaval and its consequences in India, “Fire,” “Earth” and “Water.” In fact “Earth,” Mehta’s study of India’s social collapse after independence, would make a great double bill with Loach’s Palme d’Or winner. Earth, Wind and Fire. Take that Ken Burns!)

The opposite of PBS mediocrity, Ken Loach’s brilliance lies in his ability to take large ideological issues and embody them in everyman characters. Making the political personal is usually the province of playwrights working on a smaller canvas (“On The Waterfront” notwithstanding, Arthur Miller onstage is nearly always better than Arthur Miller onscreen). But Loach creates living symbols that avoid caricature. His two brothers Damien, played sharply by Cillian Murphy, and Teddy, a wonderfully understated Padraic Delaney, are both as starkly black-and-white and red-blooded as can be. The first half of “The Wind That Shakes The Barley” shows these young idealists fighting the British baddies, ethnic slurs like “paddy” hurled at them by anonymous thugs. The stark violence is disturbing but nothing we haven’t seen before from Scorsese and his ilk. What sends a shiver up the spine is the second half of Loach’s masterpiece, after the treaty with England is signed. For a brief moment you experience the joy, the climax of hope experienced by Damien and Teddy, until you realize you’re only at the halfway point of the film.

As history has shown, things could only get worse. What the Irish Republicans took for freedom finally within their sights was really an undetected poison administered by Britain’s Machiavellian Neville Chamberlain, a death sentence masquerading as truce. Like it would be in India, the natives too easily turn on one another, playing into the empire’s dirty hands. The anonymous mercenaries morph into brothers with names like Rory and Dan. The war becomes heartrendingly personal. Loach literalizes this brother against brother theme with Damien’s all-or-nothing side splitting with Teddy’s compromise-for-the-good-of-Ireland faction. As the two argue about whose means will bring about an English-free homeland, the “inevitable” victory, the film becomes painful to watch, more brutal than any bloody battle that came before. (In one poignant scene Teddy accuses Damien of being a dreamer. Damien shoots back, claiming he’s the realist. Who’s the dreamer and who’s the realist? Why, in fact both characters are.) In essence, we find ourselves listening to the eloquently moot points of two slaves condemned to die. What does it matter whose escape plan is better when neither will work? The two brothers are simply quarreling over a preferred method of execution. And Loach in all his genius literalizes this as well – one brother experiencing physical death, the other the death of the soul. Who is really dead? Who is really better off? Loach seems to ask. A question only the wind could answer.